What is a Pro-Style Offense?

I wanted to discuss the concept of a pro-style offense. I’ve heard this over many years, I’ve had a vague understanding this, but I’ve never really read anything that provided a more precise definition (at least, nothing I can really remember). By “explain,” I’m not necessarily thinking about nitty-gritty details of specific plays (e.g., blocking schemes, receiver routes, etc.) but rather more general principles and concepts. I wanted to talk about the latter, mainly to see if you guys agree or not with my understanding.

Before I start I need to make one clarification. Pro-style is not necessarily synonymous with NFL offenses, especially if we’re thinking about current NFL offenses. My understanding is that current NFL offenses blend pro-style offenses and spread passing offenses. When I say “pro style” I’m referring specifically to the NFL offenses prior to blending the run-and-shoot–i.e., early 90s or prior to that.

OK, let’s start. Here’s how I would sum up a pro-style offense:

Pro-style offenses attempt to provide a strong running and passing game by using formations, plays, and play calling in a way that integrates both in such a way that one enhances and creates opportunities for the other. A key part of this involves uses formations and plays that can offense can both run and pass effectively, which makes anticipating what the offense more difficult for defenses. One drawback here is that the offense has to run the ball effectively from a basic formation–e.g., 21 (2 RBs, 1 TE and 2 WRs). The offense has to be able to pass effectively from this formation as well. To do this in high school and college is difficult. I’m not sure exactly why this is, but my guess is that you need a lot of superior players at many positions, and executing this offense is really complex. In any event, run-and-shoot or option offenses like the wishbone aren’t inherently designed to integrate running and passing in a complementary fashion–not to the same degree as pro-style offenses.

Besides the formations and play design, pro-style offenses also achieve this integration by featuring TEs and FBs that can both block and catch the ball. Frequently featuring these positions allows the offense great versatility–giving them equal ability to effectively run and pass the ball for the same formation. Indeed, I feel like the prominence of these two position are a key way to distinguish pro-style offenses from non-pro style offenses. (I’m thinking of traditional TEs that can block and catch.)

Having said this, most pro-style offenses are run-based. That is, the running game is the foundation of the offense, and it’s used to open up opportunities for the passing game. Some exceptions might be Don Coryell’s offense in San Diego or Bruce Arians’s offense with the Cardinals. Both seemed to use the passing game to help set up the running game. However, I would classify both offenses as pro-style because they both want balance and feature running and passing in a complementary way, using formations, play design, and play calling to achieve this.

A key, or even, central feature of a pro-style offense is balance, or versatility. I feel like this is one of the most misunderstood aspects about pro-style offenses. Balance doesn’t just mean a 50/50 split between running and passing. I feel like that’s a superficial understanding of the concept. Balance means being good at both running and passing; if a defense limits one, the offense will be able to exploit the defense by resorting to the other. And a pro-style offense attempts to achieve this be weaving the running and passing games together in the way I mentioned above. Again, spread or option offenses don’t seem based on this principle. Passing occurs by overwhelming the defense with too many pass catchers to cover and perhaps using motion increase that difficulty. If the defense takes away the pass, spread offenses don’t seem designed to exploit the defense with the running game. The same can be said for option offense. The running game is built on creating several rushing opportunities, which the QB selects after the snap of the ball. The offense isn’t designed to exploit the defense with the passing game if the defense sells out to stop the run. In a way, balance means being versatile or flexible, although those words don’t seem entirely adequate, either. Another word that comes to mind is “unpredictability.” The way pro-style offenses achieve balance also creates unpredictability. Part of the reason for striving for balance is to be unpredictable to defenses. Non-pro style offenses are unpredictable, flexible, versatile and balanced.

19 thoughts on “What is a Pro-Style Offense?

  1. Are you sure “pro-style” doesn’t just refer to the positions on the field? I always thought (based on years of playing Madden) that it was two tackes, two guards, a center, a tight end (on the line, right next to the tackle), a split end (on the line, a few feet off the tackle or off the tight end), a flanker (receiver lined up off the line), a fullback, a halfback, and a quarterback.

    Maybe this is an old definition?

  2. Are you sure “pro-style” doesn’t just refer to the positions on the field?

    No, I’m not sure. I tend to think what you’re saying is part of a pro-style offense, but not all of it. Did any of what I wrote resonate with you?

  3. I think you pretty much nail it, but I would add one thing, which is not only do pro-style offenses balance the run and pass, but defenses usually can’t reliably predict whether a play is a run or pass based on the formation. In college, you can often get away with running a predictable offense (option or run-and-shoot for example) because you have the better talent. But in the NFL, if the defense knows you’re running, you won’t consistently get a decent gain, and if the defense knows you’re passing, same thing.

    However, I will say that there are other exceptions besides the two you mention (Cardinals and Chargers), like the Vikings when they had Adrian Peterson or the Rams when they had Marshall Faulk. Both of them one-back offenses (I think!) that could run the ball enough to keep defenses honest.

  4. I think you pretty much nail it, but I would add one thing, which is not only do pro-style offenses balance the run and pass, but defenses usually can’t reliably predict whether a play is a run or pass based on the formation.

    I tried to say that in the post, but I guess I wasn’t. Unpredictably is a goal, and a pro-style offense tries to achieve this by being able to run and pass effective from the same plays.

    In college, you can often get away with running a predictable offense (option or run-and-shoot for example) because you have the better talent.

    Hmm, is that really the case? I guess that might be a part of it, but I think the situation is more complex. For one thing, I think pass-based offenses like the run-and-shoot are chosen because they can’t get adequate talent. I think the same is true for option offense–e.g., the military college teams. I almost want to say these offenses are “gimmicky,” and that’s why they can have some success. But gimmicky offenses don’t work in the NFL, and I tend to think this is because a) there is too much talent; b) coaches have time to prepare.

    My sense is that pro-style offenses require higher level of skill, and maybe a broader range of skill. The wikipedia entry mentions that the offensive line has to be adept at pass and run blocking, for example. I’m not sure if that’s true, but that sounds right. I think QBs in a pro-style offense have to be good pocket passers–and that skillset seems uncommon. In addition to TEs and FBs, I think the pocket passer is the other type of player that separates pro-style offenses from other types of offenses.

    Did my explanation of balance make sense? I’ve been having trouble articulating this concept for a very long time. And do you guys agree that balance is more than just a 50/50 run-pass ratio?

    Edit

    Oops, I forgot to address something else:

    However, I will say that there are other exceptions besides the two you mention (Cardinals and Chargers), like the Vikings when they had Adrian Peterson or the Rams when they had Marshall Faulk. Both of them one-back offenses (I think!) that could run the ball enough to keep defenses honest.

    I’m not clear on what you mean by “exceptions.” Are you saying that Vikings and Rams were examples of pro-style offenses that were built on the pass? I agree that the Greatest Show on Turf Rams was an example of that. As for the Vikings with AP, I think that was more run-based. Denny Green’s Vikings (with Jake Reed, Cris Carter, and Randy Moss; Man, what a trio that was. Reed was a really good #2) might be a better example. I’m sure there are others.

    By the way, I’m not sure if you’re implying that the one back set is equivalent to more of a pass-based pro-style offense, but I don’t really agree with that…Hmm, then again, you could be right. Joe Gibbs Redskins is first offense that I can think of that did this (perfected it?). They used one back and three WRs. I think they might have use two TEs and two WRs as well (to deal with LT). I don’t remember if this offense used the pass to set up the run, but that doesn’t sound right.

    One important point that I wanted to make, but forgot: At it’s best, running and passing complement each other so well that calling the offense run-based or pass-based seem inappropriate. In these offenses, the foundation of the offense may be the running game, but the passing game also helps set up the run. For example, a good vertical passing game will open up the running game. Or think of a passing game with WRs that are difficult to guard one-on-one. As the defenses shifts to help cover these players, that will likely open up opportunities for the running game. But what makes this run-based is the plays, formations, and play calling. It can be very confusing. I want to know if you guys agree with me on that. (By the way, part of the reason I’m doing this is because I’m talking to some people who have only started watching the NFL in the last ten years or less. My sense is that they have little understanding of run-based or pass-based offenses, and so I’m hoping you guys can confirm or correct my understanding.)

  5. I don’t think balance is as important as you think it is, and yes, I think we get what you mean. You have been trying to articulate it for years, but seriously I think you’ve explained your feelings adequately.

    1. I don’t think balance is as important as you think it is…

      Why do you say that?

      and yes, I think we get what you mean. You have been trying to articulate it for years, but seriously I think you’ve explained your feelings adequately.

      OK, thanks for the feedback. I think I’m having problems with the stats guys. When I say “balance,” they think 50/50 run-pass, and can’t seem to think beyond that, no matter how often I try to explain. “Balance” doesn’t seem entirely adequate a word to capture what I’m talking about, and I get why people only think about the 50/50 ratio.

  6. Because you think it’s suuuuuuper important and I don’t. It’s too dynamic and interesting a game to place too much importance on any one concept of how it should be played. It’s proven true in baseball and basketball recently. I think it’s true of football too.

    Also, it’s wrecking your enjoyment of the game, which it certainly isn’t doing for me.

    1. Oh OK, it sounds like you’re talking about importance in a broader sense–e.g., A balanced offense is important to my enjoyment of football. I’m talking about the importance of balance in relation to the way pro-style offenses work–i.e., it’s a crucial principle baked into the offense.

      I should say that I think this is an ideal, and not all offenses and coaches actually achieve this. Also, I do concede that some NFL pro-style coaches don’t emphasize this as much. I thinking of Andy Reid with the Eagles or Mike Martz. With the latter, my sense is that he thinks he can build his passing game off of formation and motion, which create difficult match up for defenses. Mike McCarthy and Jon Gruden are other coaches like this in my view. While they’re pass-based this is significantly different from Bruce Arians.

      Offenses need not be balanced in the way I describe, but for most pro-style offenses this is a very important concept and objective.

  7. Ah yeah. That is what I was doing. Then I have no problem agreeing that balance is a critical piece of what we call a pro-style offense.

  8. Reid,
    Why do you think NFL coaches have more time to prepare versus a college coach? They both play once a week?

    I think one of the biggest difference between traditional pro-style offenses and college offenses is the amount of decisions that need to be made by the players. From what I understand is option offenses gives the players options to do certain things, yet is structured in what they do, whereas pro-style offenses rely on players making decisions. So a DB is playing to the outside in a bump and run, the receiver should read that and run a post, and the QB is supposed to do the same. RBs, like in the Cowboy stretch play with Murray, isn’t supposed to run in any specific hole, they are supposed to read and run in the hole that develops. That goes for zone blocking offensive lineman, they don’t block a specific player, but block a zone. I remember the big worry about Mariota is that because the Duck offense is so structured in terms of making decisions, teams were worried if Mariota could read defenses.

    1. Why do you think NFL coaches have more time to prepare versus a college coach? They both play once a week?

      I read an explanation a while ago, but I can’t remember all the details. I think part of it had to do with how much time the coaches had with players as well. If I recall the article was about the way offenses like Chip Kelly’s can have more success in college than the NFL. I could be totally remembering this wrong, though.

      I remember the big worry about Mariota is that because the Duck offense is so structured in terms of making decisions, teams were worried if Mariota could read defenses.

      What it sounds like you’re saying is that pro-style offenses are far more complex, both in terms of the knowledge and decisions of each individual player. For QBs, I think remembering and calling plays in the huddle is another layer of complexity as well.

      But do you have the same understanding of a pro-style offense, and do you think I explained it in a clear way?

      1. But do you have the same understanding of a pro-style offense, and do you think I explained it in a clear way?

        Yeah it sounded good to me.

        1. OK, thanks for the feedback. I’m thinking of writing a longer post on another site about this. So, hopefully you guys helped me avoid embarrassing myself.

          1. I think your downfall on doing that is the Wikipedia post that Mitchell posted. Readers could compare what you said to what Wiki said, if you really care about being embarrassed (but why start now).

  9. I think your downfall on doing that is the Wikipedia post that Mitchell posted. Readers could compare what you said to what Wiki said, if you really care about being embarrassed (but why start now)

    Haha. Please, my explanation puts wiki to shame. Seriously, did you like the wiki entry? I thought it didn’t give enough information. With Seahawks fans one topic involves run-first offenses, and my tack is to explain and differentiate pro-style offenses from non pro-style offenses. If I just gave the wiki definition, I don’t think that would help much. But maybe I’m embarassing myself again.

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